Three Signs You Are Burning Out

In April 2017, Portland Seminary received a $50,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. to explore the question of pastoral thriving. This is the second of five blogs that we are producing to share our findings, while soliciting continued discussions.

As Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Portland Seminary, a number of our students do research around the topic for pastoral well being. Their concern is commonly expressed in negative terms such as burnout or compassion fatigue. A quick search using the keyword ‘burnout’ of the George Fox University Digital Commons returned 25 dissertations from the last few years that address the topic in some way – and that is from our institution alone!

So, what are some of our key findings around pastoral burnout?

Burnout is not depression, exhaustion, or stress, though these may all be contributing factors.

Burnout is not just a clergy problem; it is widespread among most of the helping professions. High levels of burnout are being reported among medical residents, trauma nurses, counselors and therapists, managers, aircraft maintenance technicians, police officers working with victims of rape and sexual assault, and Korean school teachers – to highlight a few.

So, if you are a pastor, how do you know if you are experiencing burnout? According to leading research clinician, Christina Maslach, you will notice three broad symptoms on a regular basis:

  1. Exhaustion: You feel physically and emotionally fatigued. It is more difficult to cope.
  2. Cynicism: You are detached or withdrawn from your ministry, congregation, and colleagues.
  3. Professional efficacy: You notice a drop in your productivity or your capability to get work done.

In other words, pastors experiencing burnout will:

  • feel unappreciated or “used” by their congregations
  • be isolated or lonely
  • experience decreased creativity
  • feel sustained empty or numb or indifferent
  • find it hard to make decisions
  • struggle to adjust to changes
  • lack boundaries around their work schedules
  • feel disconnected from the values and mission of their church community
  • be easily angered or irritated

At a recent gathering of pastors discussing pastoral thriving, one participant described his burnout experience. He was part of a fast growing church. Staff were constantly tasked to do more. Work had become chaotic. He remembers coming to himself one night. He had been sitting at his desk staring at the screen for hours, but he couldn’t remember what he had even done. It was as if he was paralyzed.

Left unaddressed, pastors experiencing prolonged burnout can find themselves caught up in affairs, addictions, or leaving ministry altogether.

A core purpose of the Lilly grant proposal is to help pastors move from burnout to once again thrive in their roles.

What practices do you think would most help clergy avoid burnout?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the authors and those providing comments on these blogs are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Portland Seminary, George Fox University or any employee thereof. We make no representations as to accuracy, completeness, timeliness, suitability or validity of any information presented by individual authors and/or commenters on our blogs and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.